If ever the aesthetics in the past few centuries and 20th century could be compared, it is now in the 21st century in New York City. At this time two blockbuster exhibits are on display, one at the Museum of Modern Art (in Sunnyside, Queens), the Picasso-Matisse exhibit, and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Manet-Velasquez exhibit.
Clearly Picasso and Matisse spoke to one another literally and figuratively. They were inspired by similar themes and seemed to capture the spirit of a new century. Both were subversives who were intent on challenging bourgeois sensibility, most specifically the aesthetics of visual reality. They imbibed Freudian metaphors, the relativism of an age that lost faith in certainty, the brutality of World War I and subsequent totalitarianism.
From the mangled bodies in Verdun and the Spanish Civil War, they found dismembered figures in their paintings. Theirs was a vision of experimentalism and nihilism. They were existentialists caught in the web of future shock. They were the artisans of imagination; the brush being less significant than the palette, the hand subordinate to the mind.
But, as I see it, they were poseurs laughing at the world. Robertson Davies, in his novel, What’s Bred in the Bone, makes the same point. To him, Picasso is a fraud who recognizing his own limitations as a painter changes the standard for evaluating art. Instead of beauty — the central criterion of artistic judgment — Picasso offers ugliness. Instead of life forms, Picasso and Matisse offer masks. Instead of civilized expression, they offer primitivism. Instead of manners, they deliver barbarism.
It is ironic indeed that the masses pouring into MOMA to see the founders of modernism are largely middle class patrons there to see an unmitigated assault on bourgeois values. Here is yet another illustration of a “safe” walk on the wild side for a bourgeoisie that is confused about its own position. As one woman said to her mate, “Should I really like that?” Yes, the aesthetic revolution is complete.
Or is it?
Velasquez is a 17th century Spanish artist who so thrilled the French painting world that his work in a scant two decades went from anonymity to the most profound influence in European culture. Manet drank from the artistic well Velasquez created and as the exhibit demonstrates, the Velasquez influence crossed the Atlantic and melted onto the canvasses of Whistler, Sargent, Chase, Cassatt and a host of American artists.
The color and grandeur of Velasquez bullfights touched a universal impulse for action and bravery. For nascent French democracy, Velasquez captured the sentiments of vagrants, prostitutes, and street musicians. He offered the era of Louis Napoleon what it could not see on its own.
It took the sack of Seville, more than a century after his death, for Velasquez to be recognized. He found beauty in the pedestrian. He elevated the quotidian to majestic heights and gave the French Revolution a culture for the common person.
In Manet, Velasquez had the ideal disciple. His clear, powerful brushstrokes convey a message about the human condition — the suffering, the heartbreak, the determination and the unheralded acts of grace. Before he became intoxicated by impressionism, Manet was the voice of common expression.
The combined exhibit of Velasquez’ and Manet’s painting is nothing short of breathtaking. As revolted as I was by Picasso-Matisse, I was exalted by Manet-Velasquez. If the former duo changed artistic aesthetics, the latter enhanced them. Where the former subverted the middle class, the latter rejoiced in their accomplishments, however mundane.
It is hard to say whether the crowds that went to see these respective exhibits share my opinion. My impression is that the American middle class has been so browbeaten it can no longer recognize a hoax. Yet even “vulgarians” or those so labeled by the artistic tastemakers, must respond intuitively to beauty and the sheer power of imagery made majestic.
I was stopped in my tracks by Léon Bonnat’s “Job,” a painting that had so forcefully captured human suffering and redemption that it entered my dream world for days. Not one Picasso or Matisse painting influenced me in the same way. Those were mere passing images, novelties like ads on a billboard.
Am I too harsh, perhaps unforgiving? I’m not sure. What I do know is that art can affect deeply when it speaks to the human condition. Without doubt Manet and Velasquez do.
Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University.